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Nutrition Articles  ›  Meals and Food

Healthy & Fun Lunch Ideas for Kids

Think Outside the Lunch Box Next Time You Pack

-- By Liza Barnes, Health Educator
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Make it Delicious
Even if you did pack a cottage-cheese-stuffed bell pepper and a bran muffin, that doesn't necessarily mean that it made its way to your child's tummy. This lunch might please your palate, but younger taste buds aren't generally so adventurous. And if they don't like it, they probably won't eat it—especially if you're not around. The best way to ensure that lunch ends up where it should is to recruit some help when packing it. Research shows kids enjoy food more if they've helped in its preparation. Besides letting them chop and bag, there are many ways to get them involved:
  • Let your child choose what to pack. If you're afraid to let her choose what goes in the box for fear it will consist entirely of junk food, then let her choose between a few different approved items.
  • Create a menu. Work with your child to come up with a list of foods he'd be happy to see in his lunchbox. Categorize them into food groups, and let your child pick an item from each group to pack. This way they have guidelines AND a choice. Keep a running list of ideas (yours and your child's), so that you can liven up the menu periodically.
  • Don't overlook last-night';s dinner. Did your child really love the veggie pizza you had for dinner last night? Leftovers save time and make a great lunch.
  • Respect individual tastes. If you're packing for multiple children, keep in mind that what works for one may not work for another.
  • Allow periodic splurges. If you&'ve got a die-hard chocoholic on your hands, allow the occasional treat, as long as he or she is eating healthy most of the time.
  • Take the work out of lunch. Some schools give kids as little as 20 minutes to eat lunch, so peel, chop, seed, and spread in advance. They';ll be more likely to eat that juicy orange if it's already peeled.
  • Only pack foods that have passed the test. If they've never tried nori rolls, don't pack them until they gain approval.
  • Discuss the other leftovers. If you pack the carrot sticks and your child tosses them, no one benefits. Make sure that your child is actually eating their entire lunch—if not, then don't pack so much. Ask her to bring home the leftovers so you can modify portion sizes next time.
Make it Safe
No matter how nutritious and delicious your child's lunch may be, it could cause her harm if it is not prepared and stored according to food safety guidelines. To ensure that your child's egg salad sandwich is Staphylococcus-free, follow these guidelines.
  • Always wash your hands (and your child’s if he’s helping!) prior to handling food.
  • Make sure all preparation surfaces are clean to avoid cross-contamination.
  • If you are cooking food that will be eaten cold, allow enough time to chill it thoroughly prior to packing. 
  • If you are packing your child’s lunch in a reusable bag or box, make sure it has been washed in warm soapy water after each use.  
  • Keep perishable food out of the “danger zone”. Harmful bacteria multiply quickly between the temperatures of 40°F and 140°F. 
  • To keep cold foods cold, refrigerate lunches until you’re ready to walk out the door, and include an ice pack with perishable items. 
  • To keep hot foods hot, fill an insulated thermos with boiling water, let stand 5 minutes. While you are waiting, bring the food to a boil, empty the thermos, and then pour in the hot food. Keep it closed until lunchtime to keep it safe.
  • Some foods that don’t require an ice pack include fruits, vegetables, trail mix, breads, hard cheeses, canned foods (as long as they are consumed immediately upon opening), nut butters, jelly, mustard, and pickles. 
Although packing lunches may take a little more time than handing your kids a fistful of cash as they dart out the front door, it is also an opportunity to teach nutrition and planning skills, and to connect with your kids. Research shows that kids who eat healthy throughout childhood are more likely to be healthy adults, and packing a healthy lunch is yet another way to promote this behavior.



Want to get kids off to a healthy start this school year? So does SparkPeople! With "A Month of Fun and Healthy School Lunches," you'll end the food fight and get kids excited about packing lunch--with fun yet simple meals they'll actually eat. Written by a mother of three, with 50 easy and healthy recipes plus plenty of ideas tested by real moms in real life, this e-book turns lunchtime into fun time! Bonus: You'll also get 25 healthy, kid-friendly after-school snack ideas! Click here to check it out!
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About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.

Member Comments

  • HILDEJEN
    YogaGeek-

    I am a school nurse and yes kids do have allergies that could be life threatening. Unfortunately kids now have allergies to about everything. Beef, cinnamon, metal, strawberries, etc. I would have to agree with RENEETC1, where does it stop. One of my favorite classes in college was Sociology. The teacher said something one day that really made me think- "for every law put into place is another right taken away". I want to advocate for all of the kids, not just kids that have health issues. We had a parent that wanted all of the kids on a school bus to not have anything that her child was allergic to (many things) when traveling to an extra curricular function. The school turned this request down. When the mom said something to me, while I understand her concern, I also want to think about all the other students. I think it is responsible to do everything we can to avoid exposure as long as it doesn't infringe upon others. We need to try and meet in the middle. - 9/13/2013 11:02:21 AM
  • RENEETC1: You do realise how serious nut and peanut allergies can be, right? We're not talking the gut discomfort that arises in a lactose-intoleran
    t person consuming dairy (which, unpleasant though it is, is unlikely to cause serious damage in a one-off situation). People with nut allergies can get anaphylaxia which, if not promptly treated, restricts the airways and leads to asphyxiation.

    Yes, schools can be overzealous (many people with nut/peanut allergies only have issues if they actually ingest the food, yet the entire school is prohibited from bringing PB&J sandwiches on their behalf), but we are talking about a potentially fatal reaction here. It's comparing two unlike things to suggest that banning a fatal allergen leads to banning a non-fatal intolerance/sensi
    tivity. - 9/12/2013 4:48:41 AM
  • I think that the school systems are overdoing it with foods that can't be brought to school. A lot of school do not allow nuts of any kind. What's next, no milk or milk products because some children are lactose intolerant? No breads because some children have a problem with gluten? What about children who are allergic to strawberries or other fruits and veggies?
    If a child has food allergies they know it, and know they are not supposed to eat it. Type 1 diabetics have certain foods they can't eat. Education begins in the home, not with the government trying to regulate every part of our lives. - 8/27/2013 10:21:13 AM
  • my mom packed my lunch every day when i was in school. while there were definitely those days that i traded my grapes for someone else's chips, or brought my allowance money so i could buy an ice cream, overall im extremely glad i spent the majority of my formative years eating healthy. my weight gain was most definitely due to emotional eating and not knowing the difference between stress and actual hunger. now that im on the path to a healthier lifestyle, ive really started to appreciate all the ways in which my mother encouraged healthy eating growing up. im finally putting into practice all of the little things she taught me along the way about cutting unnecessary calories when cooking and eating balanced meals. - 8/26/2013 9:03:31 PM
  • These are great suggestions but I have a critique. Peanut butter may not be a safe choice for lunches due to anaphylaxis concerns. WOWbutter is an alternative that tastes like peanut butter, is healthy and is safe for your child's classmates. - 2/17/2013 12:12:38 PM
  • I love the ideas and I incorporate many of them into my own lunches. As a teacher I get about 30 minutes for lunch and that includes walking my students to the lunch room, getting me back to the teacher lunch area / work area. I get to eat and use the rest room and pick up my students all in 30 minutes, so the pre-chop, pre-peel is essential. Our students get 20 minutes in the lunch room, and any left overs must be tossed. Reusable container are also tosses. Boxes and insulated bags must be empty of all food when they leave. So much for buying nice containers to pack for the child. Also we send home a list of un approved foods each year, based on current student population and allergies - I mean anaphalactic (sp) response allergies. They may include peanuts, tree nuts, citrus (that was a new one for me), eggs, wheat, soy, ......... We are not allowed to remove those children to a different area for their protection, federal full inclusion laws do not just apply to Special Education students. Our school was monitored last year for Federal law compliance to our food service program. As a public school we receive subsidy money for the school lunch program. It was a real learning experience. Nice to say, we passed everything except minutes of table time for eating. So we adjusted the minutes at table, good for our little ones, who eat more slowly. We are also part of a huge program that serves only whole grains, with fresh fruit and fresh veggies every day, 1% milk, and reduced fat proteins. Also, increasing the number of times we serve legumes in lunches. It is taking some time for students to adjust to newer healthier menus. Our 3rd grade grows a spring to summer garden every year, and those foods are scrubbed for raw sampling or steamed for a cooked sampling. A couple of our aides volunteer to provide summer care, and there are summer veggies when they return to school in August. We are a relatively small district of about 4000 students. Most of our schools have gardens, our High School has a green house and raises vegetable an... - 9/30/2012 4:10:20 PM
  • JUDYSKITCHEN1
    I have heard that freezing water in plastic releases plastic into the water. i used to freeze my water, but no more, I really don't want to ingest plastic. - 9/20/2012 11:17:14 AM
  • AGAMILL
    This is a great article with great ideas; however I struggle with the protein because we are not allowed to send nuts/seeds of any kind to our school and no eggs either. :( - 9/20/2012 9:47:46 AM
  • I just found a new blog via a pinterest pin that I now love! It relates exactly to this article and idea of healthy packed lunches. This woman is fabulous at creating balanced lunches.

    http://360lunch
    boxes.blogspo
    t.com/

    Here is another great site for ideas too.

    http://easylunc
    hboxes.smugmu
    g.com/The-Bes
    t-Lunchbox-Sy
    stem/Yummy-Lu
    nch-Ideas/101
    36835_YSuyb#!i=881860935&k=9UfE6

    I couldn't not share :) - 9/20/2012 7:54:01 AM
  • I pack up most of my boys' lunches the night before (refrigerating what needs to be kept cold) - all I do in the morning is assemble the sandwich and then put it all in the box. Much less stress for me this way!

    One of my friends packs 5 small containers of things her children are willing to eat (at least 2 are fruits & veggies). They have to eat at least 3 at lunch. When they get home and want an after school snack, they first have to finish whatever is leftover in the lunch. This could be a good approach with picky eaters - early on you might want to include reminder notes in the lunch box, and stick with things you know they like. She's seen great success with this! - 8/25/2012 9:51:35 PM
  • BRATSCHMOM
    My husband and I pack our food for the entire day, every day. We try to eat 6 small meals a day so this can be a challenge. We have invested in good insulated bags, plastic storage containers, travel utensils, etc.... After that it's all about good food choices and variety. It's harder than eating at home, but we always have our food and NEVER have to eat junkie fast food. - 8/25/2012 2:44:26 PM
  • I drive a school bus and substitute teach. When I substitute I try to take a lunch with me. I freeze a bottle of water (or two) to use in my lunch box. This keeps my food cold plus it gives me cold water to have on my afternoon bus route. Some school districts allow the students to have bottled water on the after school buses because of the heat. If parents would freeze the bottles of water first, then it would serve a dual purpose for the kids. - 8/25/2012 2:25:18 PM
  • This has me laughing - "mock-meat deli slices (found in the natural foods section of your local grocery)". Shouldn't natural foods be, um, naturally occurring, as in, found in nature? - 8/25/2012 1:59:13 PM
  • Where my grandson goes to school there are children with peanut allergies, so he is not allowed to bring peanut butter to school! - 8/25/2012 12:59:34 PM
  • My daughter (who just started college) was always a packer. The best investment I made was spending the money for a good thermos. The small ones cost about $15-20. We used it for years and it allowed me to pack homemade soups and leftovers. Her favorite lunch was homemade lentil vegetable soup with homemade whole grain bread to dip. She also loved chili made with turkey and extra beans. I would give her baked tortilla chips to dip. I always packed her fresh fruit and although she wasn't much of a veggie fan, we found a few ways to sneak them in. I also made a lot of her "dessert items" and was able to make them whole grain or low fat. It sounds like a lot of work but didn't take more than a Sunday afternoon to make a few things. Then we were both set for the week. She started college on Monday and she is commuting. We debated whether to buy her a meal plan but when she saw the food, she pulled out the old thermos and her Vera Bradley lunch bag and packed herself something healthy. Hopefully these healthy habits continue and she won't have some of the food and weight issues that I have had. - 8/25/2012 9:54:45 AM